I’m sent through a Syntyche bank gate that’s not dialed into the public channels. It’s a brig gate. When I’m sent back to Ischarisla, that landing point isn’t familiar either.

I haven’t had much time to stand under my own power or walk after my neural grilling, and the shakiness causes my limbs to spill all over the floor. It’s quiet. I don’t sense anyone, so I don’t bother to pick myself up too quickly.

I’m home. I see the ISCHARISLA identifiers first. Then I notice the gate: a receipts-only landing point. Harmonics condenser only. Low power.

One figure moves in the shade on the other side of this room.

“I expected something like this would happen much earlier, you know…” Slow footsteps approach as I gather myself from the floor. I know this voice well. “Your career being what it is.”

“Hope you already made your investment back on my training,” I chuckle. “Doesn’t look like I’m going to be anything but a liability for a while.” The Candymaker comes into the gate room’s floodlights as I say it.

“You can’t be expected to fully appreciate the situation yet, but you’re a bigger asset than ever.” He helps me from seated to standing, and he’s strong despite his apparent age and graceful, wispy form. “I’d imagine that the logs in your neuropause alone would fetch an astounding price.”

“They seemed to think so,” I groaned as my weight transferred to my own ankles. “Then again, if they could have gotten what they wanted from me, I’d be dead.” I tap the back of my neck.

“Don’t let me spoil your ego, Systemian--but your value to the Syntyche is not raw information. Not only.” We slowly walk to the door of this unfamiliar room. When the door slides open, I’m looking at a modest-sized space that looks like a small bullpen. Tight workstations for half a dozen people, but no one is here but the Candymaker and I.

“Where the hell did I land?” I ask, following him to one of the workstations.

“One of my old processing facilities,” He shrugged and swiped a finger along the desk. “Unused for a couple years now, but the progads are doing just fine with the upkeep.” Processing facility. Not really fond of that euphemism.

Candymaker pulls out a chair.

“Sit. Injured?”

“I need to know what happened there, CM. I need to know the full details of the deal.” Candymaker knows I’m supposed to be dead. Everything I know about the Tyche and their culture point to an anomaly here. Every second that I was immobilized in the holding facility, I was preparing for death. It wasn’t because I’m a pessimist. High violators disappear.

The Candymaker gives me a stupid look--a patently stupid look that makes me want to slap him. It’s not smug, but…

“Son, I don’t know the details.” He was looking right at me. I didn’t think it was bullshit. “I don’t know why I’m looking at a captured, convicted terrorist of the Syntyche Circ--but two reactions resound over and over. Elation that you’re alive--that comes first. But taking up more volume, more space in my head, you see, are the details of the negotiation.”

The melodramatic fuck. That whole last part might be bullshit.

“No, they said only you and Bailey would be aware of the details,” I said.

“Wrong. Bailey has done full review, and we’ve got nothing about what happened. We’re the only two that are aware that any arrangement exists, but the details themselves are missing entirely. I have the record of Bailey’s transmission--classified now, of course--but it only opens more questions.” We’re staring at each other for a moment.

“I need passage to Vestinia-prime and Vestinia-agora,” I said. “Can you help?” He nods.

“Prime is a three-shoot for unregistered gates,” CM said. “I’m sure you know that all of Agora’s traffic is currently being heavily monitored due the sanctions.”

“I’m their spy, CM,” I spit it out as concisely as I can. “That’s what I think, at least.”

“That’s where my assessments lead!” He smiled. He was trying not to, but this seemed like excitement. “It makes me question quite a lot about how I perceive the Syntyche.”

“Myth of the noble hive,” I say. “It’s not about mercy. You think it’s beyond them to pick up an outsider to play hound for them?”

“I’d like to interface your Neuropause before we return home. Would you allow me?”

I shrug.

“If you find anything weird or get any impulse or dialogue that looks like a warning, you probably ought to stop. They’ve got echo.” For all I knew, the Tychabrahma had enough cognitive function to perform all his duties while keeping me in sight.

“I expected that, and I’ve nothing to hide from them. They’re well aware of my curiosity.” He pulls out a tick--a tiny adhesive hacking module--that we’ve tuned to my Neuropause. “Do you want to lie down? I’m going to black box everything from the time you left the tower to your return here.”

“Good sitting,” I say. “The overexhaustion will take care of any replay stimulus.” CM’s eyes glow, and I can see the motion of his pupils dodging back and forth as he navigates and accesses my Neuropause.

“There’s a lot I don’t want to touch,” he said. “They’ve been here, and they wanted to make that point clear--at least with the other technologically-attuned.”

“Like I said, follow those instincts. Please don’t fucking melt my brain.”

“If you’re listening, you know why I’m poking around--” CM started, looking into my eyes with his own augmented, glowing orbs. Obviously he wasn’t talking to me. “I’m not so arrogant that I believe I understand your reasons for sparing my agent, but I have some ideas.” Something about all this parlay through my Neuropause was making me sick, but I had to depend on training to keep me cool. Now more than ever. “If he’s as valuable to you as he is to me--and that value is derived from the same source--it might be beneficial to have a conversation about where our interests meet.”

I’m not sure what I gave up in that moment. To both CM and the Syntyche, I was a human weathervane. Each wanted to know where the wind was blowing--and if lightning was going to strike, the other wanted to be sure that the ground point would be me.

Was it really possible for me to stone both sides out of how I felt right then? A human fucking scout between a deeply important and extremely powerful technological path and my employer’s transdimensional security firm? My value to them was that they both knew I was a slippery shit. They had to both assume that I had a mind of my own here, so if I was hiding from them or failing to react, what else was I saying in the static void?

What was I telling them that I didn’t mean to say?

“I don’t like when mommy and daddy use me to talk out their issues,” I say. “Get the fuck out of my head, CM.” He narrowed his eyes at me, smirked a bit, and nodded.

“Touchy, touchy.” He deactivated the tick, and I pulled it off my Neuropause, dropping it in on a glass plate. “I assumed I had your permission to speak through the channel since we know it’s constantly open.”

You’re putting me in an impossible place, I thought as LOUDLY as I could, legitimately unsure if I was actually being monitored in a way that would actually convey it. If you want me to act a certain way or withhold information from this one, you’ve got to restrain him. I can’t.

Something on CM’s lenses pulsed, and his face shifted.

“Understood,” CM said aloud. “Not until you’re finished with him.” The lenses dimmed, and his stone face turned to me.

“Nothing was retrieved.” He stood up and headed to the door. “From here on, ask me no direct favors. Your room will always be your room, but I cannot help you. I cannot be seen to assist IN assisting you.”

“CM, what the hell do--”

“Your interface node on the CMH databanks is revoked. From now until an undetermined future date, you are restricted from accessing any current or active diplomatic archive.”

“You’re trapping me, CM.”

But I think I knew why. It was the Syntyche, threatening him with something even I didn’t know about. Maybe I did it; maybe in asking them to get clear on what I should and shouldn’t tell my boss, they made it clearer than ever by making him afraid to talk to me. He couldn’t whisper sorry, he couldn’t give me a signal, nothing--nothing--to tell me this was for show. My senses themselves were tainted, and to my employer, now I was nothing but a walking, talking Syntyche bug.

“I’m doing nothing, son. I’m doing nothing at all.” His eyes said sorry--at least that’s what I wanted to see in them. Losing most of my bankgates, followed by direct access to the CMH datasystem was like losing my wings on the way home and then breaking an ankle once I got here. “Please be discreet about your conversations with Bridgman. I’ve lost you to them, Kalin. I cannot lose her.” His lips formed another word, but he seemed to think better of it.

“Get to Vestinia,” He said. “As soon as you can. The facility PrOGADs will lock the place down when you leave.” I nodded to him, keeping my thoughts to myself. “Luck does not abandon, Kalin.”

The door shut. I knew the Tyche were interested in this relationship and knowing where my loyalties settled, so I just repeated it to myself over and over until I believed it:

Not his business. My debt, my burden.

I believe it, which helped. It wasn’t the whole story of course, but it was a mode of thought for me to cling to--a value that I could protect like an idiotically loyal dog--and be believed by those who were watching me more intimately than I could watch myself.

My debt, my burden.

When I go back to Ytras’ hold, he won’t be there. Anywhere I need to go next, he’ll be well out of the way. He pried just a little bit--at the tiniest sliver--and the Tyche responded with a warning frightening enough to turn The Candymaker himself into a quivering bowl of gelatin.

“PrOGs, we got a phone?”

“THIS OFFICE IS EQUIPPED WITH PAGEOUT TO OTHER SECURE FACILITIES. DIRECT CONNECTIONS ARE PROHIBITED.”

“Alright, pageout: Bridgman, Bailey - Ytras’ Hold, Temponis - SEC ID 333944 : i made it. meet at inferior level gate with any active vestians. meet out of sight of transfer pad--bazzy’s eatery works. instrux at gate. bring one sixth of what’s left of that stuff we drank together. no changes no substitutions PAGEOUT only.”

I wait a few minutes for this old encrypted spy shit to buzz back.

“RECIPIENT GUARANTEED. PAGEOUT ACKNOWLEDGED.”

It was time to smuggle my way back into Vestinia.

 

* * *

 

Bailey was wearing the pantyhose, I was sure of it. She kept fidgeting every now and then, and I sat watching her long enough to make sure there was no one else on the scene pulling either security or documentation.

I’m not sure what or who I’m looking out for, actually. Not externally. Every one of my assessments here is pouring down a data drainpipe--some invisible ontonic thread that leads right back to the processing power of the Syntyche. I’ve slipped IDOX security before--many, many times--but it was either when I was younger and far more stupid, or totally experienced AND well-equipped enough to mask myself without concern.

“Hey.” Flat. Dull. Her eyes are shining a bit, but she’s not looking at mine.

“It’s good to see you, Kalin.” I sit down across from her at a long table in Bazzy’s. “Do you want anything to eat?” I do. I’m dying--but there’s something a bit more important.

“No changes, no substitutions,” I say, looking at the surface of the table. The menu is scrolling as I poke at it, reading the same words I sent to Bailey on the pageout.

“Made to order…” Bailey breathes, barely mumbling it. “So now you’ve involved me.” I try not to react to this. “No words? You didn’t know I had business in the Vestiniad?” Passing through a gate with me isn’t a good idea. Her credentials are higher than any official clearance I’ve ever received. A fall for me is a return to my shady past, but a fall for her would be the end of a career.

“Don’t be stupid,” I smile, confirming an order of warm lychee pulp. “We’re going to do some shopping, and you’re going to see me off at the old epi-banks.”

“No. We are not. Plans have changed.” she says, staring right at me now. “I am deactivated.” Heat passes through my face. Have I fucked her entire life?

She must see this passing through me, because she drops her eyes and shakes her head steadily. She taps her feet a little oddly as she continues. “Not what you think, loser. My credentials are temporarily suspended for reasons of diplomatic conflict.”

“Bailey--what does that mean?”

“We’re a team, Kalin.” She’s looking right at me, and I can’t tell whether she’s angry, disappointed--nothing. It’s all professional. It’s all diplomacy. “The Syntyche have their reasons, I have my own.”

I’m about to ask what they are, but I’m slowly realizing that in some cases--it’s better not for me to know details. The less I know, the less they know.

“You can’t navigate Agora without me,” Bailey continues, “and if they want any useful information out of that path at all--they will not mind my plan.” She’s not talking to me there. She’s talking to my Neuropause.

“I’ve done worse, Bailey. Please don’t throw away--”

“Grow the fuck up. I just told you I’m not sacrificing anything for your sake.” A high-PrOGAD brings my lychee, and I watch credits trickle from my public account on the table display. “For the purposes of this engagement--I am your superior. You are the strategic and tactical expert, but I execute. We’re clear?”

“I don’t...I dunno what we’re doing,” I had a couple of different options for the jumps to Vestinia Prime, but I really didn’t know what I was going to do in the chaos of Vestinia Agora, which is not nearly as playful with outsiders.

“We’re a team--that does not mean all information is free flow. You know some, I know some. End of our needs. Given the situation, don’t you think that’s best?” I nod. “I don’t know how Syntyche wants to use you, and CMH doesn’t care. You are *our* asset, and we intend to restore you to full-service when your responsibilities to them are met. This means that I will be assisting you as much as possible from a safe distance.”

I get the game here--at least I think I do. CM and Bailey treat me like the same soldier-for-hire the Syntyche currently sees in me. They lock me out, they protect their assets. I try not to think about it beyond that. I find myself repeating it like my last mantra:

I am an asset.

I let the emotions flow when I say it, too--I let myself feel like an asset. Like a human being called an asset. Play the game. Obscure as much as possible by staying ignorant. Be human. Be predictably irrational.

“You didn’t explain ‘reasons of Diplomatic Conflict’,” I mutter.

“Certainly. You’re aware that most houses have sanctioned Agora for sentient rights’ abuses.”

I probably have a stupid look on my face when I respond that I was the one who gave her that intelligence the last year.

“Well,” Bailey continues, “I am currently an unbound, independent envoy to Vestinia Agora. In this function I speak for the Agoran council of Lieutenants.”

I can’t help my mind from spiraling down all the paths, all the motivations that would have made this happen. Exactly how close has Bailey been trailing me? How much has she been colluding with the free vestians I brought home?

“You look worried, Kalin. Don’t you think my new position is going to be a major help to you? Or are you still convinced that you can do this nonsense all by yourself?”

I thought I was taking Bailey beyond her depth--that I was involving her in a way she couldn’t handle. She knows more than I realized. She’s got a game plan.

“If your jumps are logged with my jumps, then you’re still going to--” I’m cut off by Bailey’s laughter.

“I’m still a diplomat, idiot. You’re not coming with me.” Her eyes narrow, and she hands me a couple thin plantinum bars. “In fact--you’re not using the epi-gates...at all.” I take the two cold toolweight bars. Bailey swallows hard, and something breaks in her a little before she regains her composure. “You’re going to DEEPLAB, where you’re going to bribe them to chuck you into Prime using an exotic jump method they’ve been working on. From there, you secure your own transit to Agora. I understand you’ll have your own mobile station there.”

No banks, no epi-banks. I was off to see the Petroves--a subspecies of human that hasn’t left the Ischarislan underground for hundreds of generations.

“A...safe exotic jump method.” I’m not even going to start in on why she wants me in Agora, which is an ugly warzone. Factions of etheral beings have turned militant toward humans, mostly due to the remaining resistance of humans discovering a working knowledge of technology that provides etheral resistance.

“An untraceable one they’ve been using for sensitive transit for a while now. Generally not on intelligent life, but I don’t think we have any concerns there, do we?” She just stares at me, and it’s so cold that it’s bothering me intensely. Whatever weakness I saw a few moments ago--it was gone now. Maybe forever.

And this is the real power of a good diplomat. She’s an old friend, and I have no idea what she’s thinking.

“Where and when?”

“Give the platinum to Chalco.” Bailey said. “After this, no teleontonics, no wires, no messages in bottles--nothing from you or of you comes to me--not even at Agora. Get it?” I nod, draining most of my glass of pulp. “Once you’re in Agora, I’ll know about it. Until my people come and get you, stay cool and shut up.”

“I shouldn’t ask what the plan is, right?”

“You won’t get any follow ups,” Bailey smiled. “I’m using you as a bargaining chip. Get your claim from the Governess General, and get to Agora.”

 

* * *

 

Chalco’s blue-pink eyes dim, and he sighs.

“Hmm...we really appreciate your volunteering spirit, Kalin, but we were hoping to have a few more communicative test subjects come back before we start throwing folks with rank in.”

I just blink at the pale, gaunt being. He’s got soft, friendly eyes and a delicate face, but they’re smaller than those of a surface-dwelling human. He has long, bony fingers and sharper teeth than mine.

“I mean, we are very confident about things as they are, but it’s not fair to let you pay your bag materials without being forward about what you’re getting into.”

“It’s fine,” I say thrusting the metal toward him. He grins, shrugs and takes the bars from me, motioning to me to follow. “What do you mean by bag materials?”

“It’s a problem we’ve pretty much cleared up, but every once in a while, matter will phase-lock while we’re trying to divide up the quantum streams into different dimensional transit paths, right?” Chalco let out a wild laugh. “SPLAT!” He clapped his bony hands together and turned to me, still walking backwards. “Cleanup got a lot easier after we augmented the surfaces, but it’s still time-consuming.” I want to stop and back out, but I can’t. I know I can’t. I have no IDOX credentials. I’m locked out of CMH.

“So...what’s the rate of success?” I ask.

“Organic subjects? Like 9 out of 10 successes, more or less. Most of those were plants, but hey! Success is success.” His clap on my back isn’t reassuring.

As Chalco and I take the shaft systems coreward, toward the mantle of this overly oblate earth, he explains their work in sending free signals through the tear. When I ask how they’ve been able to keep it a secret, he tells me it’s a question of ontonic untraceability. Instead of open-point/close-point transit, a signal’s quantum data is sorted into frequency bands and sent over different pathways depending on some kind of efficiency curve I couldn’t begin to follow.

I let Chalco go on and on about it anyway.

“So you’re like--splitting my body up, shooting it out over a bunch of different paths and reassembling it at the endpoint.”

“Right! Right!” His blue-pink eyes light up. He proud of himself for dumbing it down enough for me to understand. “Chalic process will shift ontonic trade once our investors are ready to release it.”

“And you’re not afraid I’ll spill the beans?” I chuckle.

“You’d stumble halfway through trying to explain it, and my ears would start burning--even on the other side of the tear.” Chalco shows his teeth. “I’d eat your frontal lobe before you had a chance to mumble your dumbass through the details!” He cartwheels over his arms, and I chuckle.

Suddenly he’s dangling the platinum in front of me.

“Listen, I can give these back--and we can forget this. Last chance.” His expression is a bit different now.

“Chalco--it means a lot that you’re trying to protect me, but I’m fucked. I have my reasons. No follow ups, please--for me or anyone else that arranged this. Don’t make it worse.” His eyes go wide. It was just like Bailey said--I know some, you know some. Anything more puts everyone deeper in the well.

“Like I’m interested in what you fucking maniacs are into,” He grins, patting me on the back. “I’m glad to have a volunteer--even if it’s an occasional drinking buddy.” Then he pauses for a second. “You know...I like a wide open dome--a huge, long undercanyon--but the SKY--that open sky...it makes you all stupid. It makes you airy and dumb and void.” He heaves a great sigh and gives me one more clap on the shoulder. This one almost hurts. “Should we eat a celebratory meal or something before your journey?” He asks.

I actually want to put flesh on my breath before going back to Vestinia, which is vegan by design. I’m limited in my capacity to intimidate ethera-based entities, but looking like a vicious carnivorous barbarian is to my psychological advantage.

“Meat. Red and raw if you have it.” His eyes light up again, and he’s nodding at me.

“You know that’s all we have. You might be stupid, sunburn, but you’ve got good taste for a roof-dweller.”

 

* * *

 

“Reset the displacement coordinates and lock S2U1126. Dial up 115% of the joules we need to displace 82.45 kilo. We’re looking at thirteen to fourteen thousand mole. Divide out the heavy electronegatives and separate the high-bands as far as you can. This one has an implant, and the position can’t shift. It’s biologically integrated, and he’s dead without it.”

The look on the faces of the other Petroves tells me that Chalco is breaking the rules, or something. When they speak to each other, they approach him carefully and bring up their concerns. Chalco--every time--shames them to silence with a few light-hearted insults.

“You know these spatials are good, right?” He’s looking low at me. “It would really suck for us to get the transfer right and put your vital organs inside an overpass or something.”

“They’re from the device and calculated against the Kepler logs. Double checked. They’re right.”

Eventually, he kicks them all into gear.

“If you’re all so wormy about cleaning up another mess, GET IT RIGHT and get the roof-dweller where he’s going.” He belts out laughter now, slapping what I guess to be his first lab assistant on the back. “If we don’t get it right, here’s the good news--they don’t want him alive up there anyway! The worst we’ll have to do is clean up.”

This doesn’t seem to set anyone at ease, though they’re all studying their instrumentation a little more closely. I’m about to be flung a million different directions in the void, and Chalco’s cracking jokes.

Petroves are pretty sardonic anyway, but these guys almost look like they’re strapped to the ring instead of me.

“What’s it going to feel like?” I ask a tech. He just looks up at me.

“You know Dim-death,” he says to me. He’s talking about the dream-like, time-is-meaningless hallucinatory state in between gate jumps. I nod to him. “It won’t be anything like that.”

But then the fucker says nothing else. He leaves me hanging. Just when I’m about to ask him for more, he cuts me off.

“Are you your mind, or are you this device?” The tech asks, pinching my neuropause between long slender fingers.

“I can’t be me without either piece,” I say. “I’m both.” He shakes his head.

“The real you is somewhere else. These are antennae,” The tech says. “Tuners. They tune the will of a spirit that exists somewhere else.” He checks my straps one more time. We’re not talking about technology anymore. “You will be split into the milk of matter. You will return to the origin, where the real you waits.” Chalco approaches again, looking at my eyes and grinning.

“Even if you beg I won’t stop now,” he says. “They’re ready. We’re excited to see what happens.”

“Yeah, they look it,” I say, doing my best to smile back. The tech backs off when I stare him down.

“Did Herkimer wax religion with you?” Chalco asks. “He’s got a good bedside manner. That’s why I let him do this job.”

“Do you want an immortal soul, Chalco?” He shrugs.

“If I don’t have one, all the prayer in the world won’t get me one.” He puts his pale hand in the center of my chest and presses down slightly. “If I’ve got one, no sale in the world could rid me of it. Fuck ‘want’. No one cares what we want.”

“Amen.”

“Good luck, sunburn. I want you to know I’ll miss talking with you if we fuck up. It won’t be as fun only drinking with the smart one.” Fucking Chalco.

“Tell Bailey to share the coffee with you if I die.” His brow wrinkles.

“Caw-fee. Sounds sweet.” He makes a face. “I don’t do candy, con-man.”

“It’s contraband, and it’s bitter as alkali soil.” Those petrove eyes light up one more time.

“In that case, you share the caw-fee with me if you live. Get back to Ischarisla, dummy.”

“You can’t do a reverse displacement with this tech yet, right?” I’m looking for an easy way back in, just for my own curiosity. Chalco shakes his head.

“Years out. Very ugly right now. We can’t pull anything but fire.”

“Mobile?” Now he just laughs.

“Do you see the room of machines you’re hooked up to, sunburn? Maybe if you breed we can sell that to your children. So--another reason for you to live.” The toothy grin again, and he gives my cheek a light slap. “See you again.”

He walks away from the table, and it retracts under me, leaving only my bonds. The ring is starting to hum.

“Keep your eyes and mouth open,” The tech says, wandering back over. “We’re not sure that it matters, but we think it might.” He approaches as close as he can to the raised ring and says just enough for me to hear it above the hum: “When we send you through, you will see the origin. Do not reject yourself, or you will not land.”

I don’t know what the fuck I’m supposed to say to this. Or how I’m supposed to take this advice.

“See your true self, and then call back to your antennae. They will be waiting for you.” He smiles. It’s a strange little smile, but I feel a little better.

See my true self, and call back to my antennae.

He’s still an engineer, right? Maybe this is actual advice about the jump. Maybe there’s science in his poetic bunk.

If it makes me feel better, I’m going to do it.

“CLEAR THE PLATFORM.” It’s Chalco’s voice over the address system. He’s in an observation cell now, watching me from a glowing room full of engineers. The tech descends the stairs, and now the ring hums harder. Its resonance is getting louder--clawing into my ears now.

“WE’RE GOING TO DEPLOY COUNTERACOUSTICS. YOU HAVEN’T GONE DEAF, BUT ALL SOUND WILL SELF CANCEL WE CAN’T COMMUNICATE WITH YOU FROM HERE.” One last pause, and just as the hum gets excruciating, three more words. “LAND SOFT, SUNBURN.”

And then nothing. The sound is sucked out of the room. I can’t even hear myself breathing, but I can still blink and look around with my eyes. I can see the glowing room. I can see Chalco.

I’m breathing harder, as if I’m trying to make myself hear the sound. Now I can feel the ring around me, its energy causing cautionary faults in my neuropause. Gauss caution. Gravity shift caution. Quantetheral stability caution. Teleontonic comms failure.

I watch the final count dial backward, trying to keep the important things in my mind just before it reaches zero.

Keep your eyes and mouth open.

Do NOT reject yourself, or you will not land.

The lights in the facility shudder at 2. The ring glows hard blue at 1.

 

And then--